Obituary: Vince Naimoli (1937-2019)

R.I.P. to Vince Naimoli, a businessman who helped bring baseball to Tampa as the first owner of the expansion Devil Rays. He died on August 25 at the age of 81. He was diagnosed in 2014 with a brain disorder called progressive supranuclear palsy, according to the Tampa Bay Times. He had spent the last several years in an assisted living facility in Tampa.

The Rays issued the following statement: “The Tampa Bay Rays are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former owner and CEO Vince Naimoli. Vince was unyielding in his pursuit of a Major League Baseball franchise for Tampa Bay, and his success in landing the then Devil Rays changed the region’s sports landscape forever. In addition to his distinguished business and baseball careers, his family’s philanthropic efforts in the community will be felt for generations. We are grateful for his leadership and wish his family peace during this difficult time.”

Source: Tampa Bay Times, March 10, 1995.

Vince Naimoli was born in Paterson, N.J. on September 16, 1937. He grew up as a paper boy in New Jersey and played basketball and football at Central High School. His family and his teachers tried to push him into going to a local school or a technical school, but he dug in his heels and insisted on attending Notre Dame, which he did, on a scholarship. He became a student coach with Notre Dame’s baseball, football and basketball teams and pursued his interest in electrical engineering. He was offered an appointment to the Annapolis Naval Academy but turned it down so that he could stay at Notre Dame.

After completing two engineering degrees, Naimoli graduated from the Harvard Business School advanced management program. Though he had plenty of business credentials, he started from the ground up. He was the plant manager at aluminum can maker Continental Can before he worked his way up to vice president and general manager. He also spent time as an executive with Allegheny Beverage Co. and Anchor Glass, to name just a few of his business ventures.

By the mid-1990s, Naimoli had multiple businesses as a part of his Anchor Industries International, a holding company located in Tampa. He was known in the business world for taking struggling businesses and made them profitable by cutting all unnecessary costs. It was occasionally ruthless work, as he closed plants and laid off employees, but he also trimmed excess fat, such as getting rid of corporate jets and limos. Disagree with his methods if you will, but he was successful. For instance, he was appointed director of Harvard Industries in 1992 by creditors, after the automotive supplier had emerged from bankruptcy reorganization. He became the president and CEO the following year and took the company from a $131 million loss to a $7 million gain in one fiscal year.

“What I do is try to get everyone thinking that every penny that they’re spending is coming out of their own pocket,” Naimoli told the Tampa Bay Times in 1994. “The whole system is about getting the entire team to work together.”

Though he became one of the wealthiest people in the country, Naimoli practiced what he preached in his personal life. Instead of wearing a Rolex watch, he preferred a Notre Dame novelty watch. The only time he traveled first class on his frequent air travel was when he had frequent-flyer upgrades.

Vince Naimoli, a noted frequent flyer, being interviewed at an airport about his efforts to bring baseball to Tampa Bay. Source: Tampa Bay Times, December 12, 1994.

Tampa has been looking to host a major-league team for many years. Teams like the White Sox and Twins used the threat of moving to Tampa as a means to negotiate favorable new stadium deals. Naimoli almost landed the San Francisco Giants in 1993, and the Tampa City Council gave him nearly exclusive rights to bring a baseball or basketball team to the Florida Suncoast Dome. He and his ownership group had the endorsement of acting MLB commissioner Bug Selig; they just lacked a team.

On March 9, 1995, Major League Baseball voted to create the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks, to begin play in 1998. “It’s been a path of 10,000 steps, 10,000 phone calls, 10,000 frustrations,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “If there was a greater day in Tampa Bay history, I don’t know what it was.”

As the owner, Naimoli had his team, and he had his stadium. He also had more significant problems, which didn’t become fully realized until the team began play — but probably could have been seen in advance. First, the Rays don’t actually play in Tampa. They play in St. Petersburg, on a peninsula that isn’t easily accessible for Tampa fans. Secondly, the field, currently named Tropicana Field, is routinely listed among the worst, if not the worst, stadiums in the MLB. Aside from its inaugural season, when more than 2.5 million fans attended games, the team has never reached the two-million mark in attendance.

Rays fans who were looking for a quick winner saw Naimoli as a fall guy. He was accused of not spending enough on players — his strategy of running businesses lean until they turned a profit doesn’t work as well in baseball, where the playoff slots go to the teams with the best record, not necessarily the best bottom line. The Devil Rays finished last in the AL East for each of their first six seasons.

There were other blunders. He occasionally criticized fans in the area for being bigger supporters of the Yankees than the Rays. He once told the team to stay away from a fundraiser for the medically needy, because the charity held the event in a different location than Tropicana Field. He demanded an apology from the St. Petersburg Times after a sports column jokingly suggested that James “The Sopranos” Gandolfini play Naimoli in a movie about Rays rookie pitcher Jim Morris. He accused the paper of anti-Italian-American sentiment for alleging he had Mafia ties and had all copies of the Times removed from the Tropicana Field, even though the paper had a marketing deal with the ballclub.

Naimoli gave up his position as managing general partner of the Devil Rays in April 2001, accepting the role of chairman. It was a reduction in power and put him on more equal footing with his other ownership partners. Baseball vet John McHale Jr. stepped in to run the Rays, but the arrangement lasted less than nine months and ended with Naimoli back in power.

Naimoli was invited to Opening Day at Tropicana Field in 2015 to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Source: The Tampa Tribune, April 7, 2015.

An investment group led by Stuart Sternberg acquired about 48 percent of the Devil Rays in 2004, buying out all of the ownership group except for Naimoli. He retained his role as managing general partner, but his stake in the team’s ownership was 15 percent. In October 2005, he turned over the daily operations of the team to Sternberg, effectively ending his tenure as owner.

After his diagnosis, Naimoli did not make many public appearances. He did attend the Rays’ 2015 home opener and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. He was still a season ticket holder, even if he watched most of the games at his home.

“I miss coming to the games, but I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he said at the time. “It’s gone by in the blink of an eye, the last 20 years.”

Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano wrote a really nice look at Naimoli’s career, and how the tough-as-nails approach that brought the Rays to Tampa in the first place just didn’t fit with actually running a sports team.

“He had more in common with you and I than most other franchise owners,” Romano wrote. “His parents were decent, hard-working people. His upbringing was more hardscrabble than country club. His will to succeed was enviable. And yet it’s his foibles that are always talked about most.”

Tampa Bay Times:

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